Black pepper chicken is a popular restaurant dish, but there’s a secret to making a good one: use an equal amount of white pepper; the flavour will be so much better than if you used just black peppercorns. It’s a bit of a bother, but if you can, grind both types of peppercorn just before cooking the dish, instead of relying on pre-ground spices.
I like to use a whole chicken for this dish, but if you prefer, use only dark meat (bone-in legs and thighs), or wings (cut them in two between the middle and drumette joints), or boneless breast. With the latter, you need to be careful, because the meat will be dry if it’s overcooked; after pre-frying the breast, it needs to be simmered only briefly with the rest of the ingredients.
If using a whole chicken, have the butcher cut it through the bone into bite-size pieces, Chinese-style. The only pieces you won’t need are the head (which can be discarded) and the feet (save them in the freezer and use them the next time you make chicken stock).
Put the chicken into a medium-size bowl and add the light and dark soy sauces, rice wine, sugar, salt and sesame oil. Mix well so the pieces are evenly coated.
Add the cornstarch and stir to combine. Set aside while preparing the other ingredients.
Halve the onion, then cut it into bite-size pieces.
Halve the garlic cloves.
Cut the green banana chillies on the diagonal into thin slices. If using a green bell pepper, cut it in half and remove and discard the seeds and stem. Cut the pepper into 1cm (7/16 in) squares.
For the red banana chillies or red bell pepper, slice in half and remove and discard the seeds and stem before cutting into 1cm (7/16 in) squares.
Cut the bird’s-eye chillies into thin rings, shaking out and discarding the seeds as you go.
Slice the spring onions into 2.5cm (1 in) lengths.
Pour oil to a depth of about 8cm (3 in) in a wok and heat it over a medium-high flame. When the oil is 170°C (340°F), stir the chicken pieces well and add about one-quarter of them to the hot oil. Stir occasionally and cook until the chicken starts to turn medium-brown, then use a slotted spatula or shallow mesh sieve to remove the pieces from the wok. Drain the chicken on paper towels and cook the remaining pieces the same way.
Pour off almost all the oil from the wok (no need to wash it), then place it over a high flame. When the wok is hot, add the onion, garlic and ginger and stir-fry for about 30 seconds.
Add the banana chillies/bell peppers and the bird’s-eye chillies and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, then stir in the spring onion and cook for about 15 seconds.
Add the chicken pieces back into the wok, sprinkle in the black and white pepper, then mix well.
Stir in about 80ml (¼ cup and 4 tsp) of hot water. Mix well, then push all the ingredients to the centre of the wok, cover with the wok lid, then turn the heat to medium. Simmer for about five minutes (or less, if using breast), or until the chicken is done, stirring occasionally. If the mixture seems dry, stir in a little more water.
Remove the wok lid, turn the flame to high and cook, stirring often, until the liquid lightly coats the chicken pieces. Taste for seasonings and correct, if necessary.
Scoop all the ingredients onto a large shallow bowl and serve immediately, with steamed white rice.